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Tuesday, February 20, 2024

‘Horizon Forbidden West’ Is a Worthy Sequel

It's rare to find a sequel that manages to outshine its predecessor. To add new depth to its characters, flesh out more of the world, and raise the stakes in a way that feels grand and epic without being silly. A sequel that's more Empire Strikes Back and less Home Alone 2. This kind of achievement is rare enough in movies, rarer still in video games. But at least one game has pulled it off.

I'm talking about Mass Effect 2, of course.

It's a comparison I couldn't stop thinking about through most of my time with Horizon Forbidden West. The first game, Horizon Zero Dawn felt so perfectly self-contained. Or at least so I thought. In fact, everyone I spoke to about the original echoed this sentiment. “The first game's story wrapped up so neatly! Where else can they go from here?”

Like Mass Effect 2 before it, Horizon Forbidden West kept finding ways to surprise me, to raise the stakes and deepen the characters' relationships without feeling too corny. But I can't shake the feeling that making that comparison, even in a positive light, is unfair. You see, Forbidden West is no Mass Effect 2, if you were to put them side by side. But the latest Horizon at least manages to improve on its predecessor in the same way.

Mild spoilers for Horizon Forbidden West below.

Remembering the Old (Game) World

It's been a while since my last playthrough of Horizon Zero Dawn, and Forbidden West seems to recognize that. The game opens with a recap that does an adequate job of filling in the complex events of the previous game, and giving just enough context to reorient myself in the world. But it also had the side effect of making me realize how little mystery there seemed to be left in the game.

When starting the first game, there's a built in question hovering over nearly every moment: Why are there machine animals? It's a mystery that's impossible to ignore, even as the characters you interact with treat their presence like they're normal. And nearly every step of the story raises further questions until you finally learn the truth about the world you inhabit. That a plague of robotic war machines wiped out life on Earth, and an AI called GAIA was designed to re-terraform the planet and seed life on Earth anew.

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That mystery is gone from the world, and both you and Aloy understand how things work now. The main story picks up the threads from a post-credits scene in the original, which showed Sylens holding a captured (not destroyed) HADES, the AI antagonist of the first game that was set to destroy the world. Sylens intended to interrogate HADES to find out who sent the mysterious signal that awoke it and indirectly caused GAIA to self-destruct.

I have to admit, I'd forgotten about this tease and how significant  a mystery it presents. At the time it felt like generic sequel bait, but it raises good questions: Who did send the signal to activate HADES? What are the goals of HADES' masters? And how does Sylens fit into that plot? Fortunately, while I may have forgotten to ask these questions, the developers did not. 

Before we get into how satisfying (or not) the answers to those questions are, though—insomuch as we can without major spoilers—it's also worth mentioning the other, impressively deft way the game handles the problem of solving its own mystery: by introducing it to other characters.

Throughout the first game, and the start of this one, Aloy stands alone in her knowledge. Most other people around her view machines as gods or through a spiritual lens, which makes her understanding of history and technology singularly unique. She often responds to this solitary position by hand-waving away details, or insisting on solving every problem on her own, while gently but firmly talking down to the people around her.

This dynamic can fall into the trap—which the game's predecessor also indulged in—of treating obvious stand-ins for native cultures as “primitive.” As though they're too simple to understand the Truth that Aloy knows. And while the new game still positions Aloy as the teacher, more characters learn to see what she sees and understand it as naturally as she does.

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Narratively, this lets us learn more about the world that we've already learned about, through fresh eyes. Sure, we understand how machines and factories and AI work, but characters from the various groups in the world get to offer new perspectives on what we already know, and progress is made not by unraveling the mystery (or at least, not the old mysteries), but by sharing that knowledge.

I still wish the game had more directly challenged Aloy's assumption that it's not worth explaining things to people who won't “get it”—which at times was only slightly less frustrating than watching two partners in a romance movie refuse to talk out their problems. But this approach at least erodes the notion that there are countless people who have “simple” beliefs and don't understand, and one singular white hero who does.

The Growing Cast of Characters

Speaking of the other characters in this world, they were a welcome addition to a story that, in the previous game, felt isolated and lonely. It's perhaps understandable why a story about Aloy, an outcast and a clone of a long-dead scientist from the old world, would treat its protagonist as a singular figure. But it's a difficult act to maintain.

The story of Forbidden West is about as subtle with its themes on the value of community and friendship as a very special episode. And yet, perhaps it's the sentimental sucker in me, but I found myself eating it up. After two years of a pandemic that's fractured social structures, resulted in prolonged periods of isolation, and sown deep relational rifts, yeah. I think I'm down for a story about how you can't do everything on your own, and letting people support you is Good, Actually.

Sometimes, the game pulled this off in obvious ways, such as the case with Varl, Aloy's friend from the previous game. In several early scenes, Aloy tries to ditch Varl in the middle of the night—a thing she does so often that he treats it as a routine part of their friendship. And yet, in a relatively early quest, Varl is able to pull off a political maneuver that Aloy, with her gruff, confrontational approach, could never do. It's a little trite, but it works.

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Other times, this was reinforced in ways that were so subtle, I almost missed them. One platforming puzzle requires Aloy to stand on a platform and shoot some pillars in order to progress. However, I missed one of the pillars on my first playthrough and started to climb before I'd lined them all up. 

To my complete shock, Aloy called out to one of her companions who were along for the mission, and asked them to stand on the platform, so I could continue shooting the pillars. The NPC complied, and I was able to finish the puzzle without backtracking. Just to double-check, I reloaded a save and did the puzzle again without missing anything, and Aloy never asked for help. It's a little thing, but it made the story land just a bit more for me.

Like Mass Effect 2, the game features individual quests for the various companions that join you over the course of the game. Unlike Mass Effect 2, there's essentially no punishment if you skip them. They're entirely optional, but if you value the connections you make with your friends in the game, they're worthwhile.

Building Out the World (and More)

I've relied on the comparison to Mass Effect 2 almost too much so far, so let me deviate for just a bit longer to give Forbidden West credit for something it does singularly well: the vast, open world of side quests, exploration, and beautiful locations for photo tours. Zero Dawn was pretty, and there was a fun sense of discovery as you explored the region to discover what real-world city you happened to be in the middle of.

But Forbidden West puts this to shame. Every corner of the map is a stunning, rich, and vibrant ecosystem. Some beautiful and welcoming, others harsh and unforgiving, but each and every one filled with quests that could fill up your time, and places to stop and snap a photo. If what you enjoyed from the previous game was going on Skyrim-style excursions, ignoring the main quest for dozens of hours, Forbidden West is an even richer, more vibrant sandbox to explore than its predecessor.

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Alas, I have to bring the comparison back at last, though, because the open map isn't the only way that Forbidden West expands on its world. The main quest expands the lore of the Horizon universe in some ways that are so natural that I'm convinced, years from now, most people will remember how seamlessly the first game set up the second—rather than remembering the first as a neat, stand-alone game that wrapped everything up. 

In hindsight, the story was always going to get bigger. Of course it would. It had to.

By the time the game's climax came around—when Aloy and her associates plan a grand mission that sounds like it's almost certainly going to get everyone killed — the idle comparison to Mass Effect 2 became a bit too on the nose. And, without spoiling anything, this game sets up a much more obvious sequel. No one will be asking “Where could they go from here?” after this one.

And yet, I wish my brain had never made the connection to Mass Effect 2 at all. Horizon Forbidden West takes its narrative in some interesting new directions, and one scene in particular made me tear up at a moment when I didn't expect to be so invested. It's not enough to say there's potential in this game's story. In so many instances, it lives up to that potential.

At the same time, it seemed to lack the conviction to follow through on some of the narrative ideas and relationships it set up. I could practically feel the game screaming through the bars of its self-imposed cage to ask big questions like: Where does courage come from? How do the bonds we form with others affect who we become? Can we ever escape the sins of the wealthy and powerful? Or are we doomed merely by their existence?

Or, failing a satisfying exploration of these themes, maybe I could hope for more moments of connection between the characters. And to be sure, there were some. But most of the biggest emotional beats were wrapped up before the climax, which made the final act feel a bit rote. Not completely devoid of emotion, mind you. I just found myself less engaged than I'd been a few hours earlier. 

All that said, I feel like I'm grading on an unfair curve. Horizon Forbidden West has more character and heartfelt moments than almost any other game of its kind that I've ever played, and I'll almost certainly remember it more clearly than I did its predecessor. I had more fun, I was more intrigued by the world-building, and I cried exactly one more time than I did during the last one.

If I'm finding myself disappointed that it fell short of one of the best video games of all time, it's only because it came so close to getting there.


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